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By Anthea Lawson ZEBRA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Anthea Lawson
All right reserved.
Chapter One England, February 1847
"Tunisia?" James Huntington paced the length of his uncle's study and halted in front of the wide desk. "I've been back in London barely four months. Is it really necessary for me to leave England again so soon?"
"Sit down, James. Please." Lord Denby waved to a nearby armchair. "Under the circumstances it is both necessary and expedient. Good heavens-what were you thinking? You shot the Duke of Hereford's son in Hyde Park."
"I didn't shoot him in Hyde Park, Uncle. I shot him in the buttock, and he was only grazed. I aimed wide-it's not my fault the coward threw himself into the bullet's path."
"Perhaps that would have excused you in India, but you are in London now. A duel ..." His uncle shook his head.
"It was unavoidable." James settled into the leather armchair. "That fool said things about my sister that were scandalous and untrue. I had to challenge him-her reputation was in jeopardy."
"I appreciate your need to defend Caroline's honor, but you have placed us in a difficult situation. The Duke of Hereford will not take your public humiliation of his son well. James, your aim was most unfortunate. Young Hereford's entrance to every social event will be commented upon-at least until he can sit down again. Frankly, I need you out of town until this blows over."
James studied his uncle,noting how weary and stern Lord Denby looked in his formal black mourning clothes. His usually neat desktop was crowded with account books and piles of correspondence. It couldn't be easy trying to restore order to an earldom. Grandfather's recent death had left Lord Denby with the title-and an estate in disarray. The last thing he needed right now was a scandal.
James ran a hand through his already tousled brown hair. "I can see leaving London. But why Tunisia? I could simply make a quiet disappearance to one of your country properties."
"You could. But I need you to go to Tunisia." Lord Denby lifted his spectacles and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "This is as much about your grandfather's will as it is your regrettable duel. He chose to tie up a rather large number of loose ends by passing them along to his descendants. One of the most troublesome concerns his residence, Somergate."
"Somergate?" It had been his grandfather's primary residence, the property the old man had lavished his attention and money upon-often to the detriment of the family's other holdings. James remembered the moist warmth of the grand conservatory there, the sharp, earthy smells of the tropical plants. He had been a boy, his father still alive, holding James by the hand and carrying Caroline on his shoulders. James's grandfather had led them through the maze of greenery and bright blooms, speaking the names of the plants as if he were greeting old friends.
James swallowed, banishing the old ache the memory evoked.
His uncle shuffled through a pile of paper on his desk. "We can't wind up the estate until the will's provisions have been carried out-or proven impossible. Your grandfather always claimed he had made an important botanical discovery during his adventures in Tunisia, but had been unable to bring back the specimen that would prove it. His traveling companion, Mercer, died there, and the journals that documented the expedition were lost. Under his will, whichever descendant manages to recover and publish those journals receives the Somergate estate and his blasted horticultural collection."
James leaned forward. "That's absurd."
"No, that's your grandfather. My solicitor tells me the old schemer left no loopholes."
"What if no one is willing to go chasing across Africa looking for lost journals?"
"Then Somergate goes to Kew Gardens. Such a bequest would no doubt cement your grandfather's reputation among his scientific peers, but it would be disastrous for the family to lose such a valuable property."
Somergate gone. It was unthinkable.
"What does my cousin think of all this?" It was a question that had to be asked-not that James personally gave a damn what Reggie thought.
Lord Denby shifted in his chair. "I have not discussed this matter with him. I realize the odds are long, but this is a chance to have something for yourself. Your father left you little enough when he died, and I would like to see you independent and not beholden to Reginald when he succeeds me. I know how it stands between the two of you."
He didn't, not really. But this was not the time to set him straight. Ever since James and Caroline had been taken in as orphans by their uncle, Reggie had been an enemy-using every opportunity to let them know how unwelcome they were, always reminding them of his own superiority, that they were not the true son and daughter of Lord Denby and did not belong there. It had not been an easy childhood. But it was also not easy for Lord Denby to have a son like Reggie for his heir. James firmed his mouth. Some things were better left unspoken.
His uncle continued, "I would like to see you settled-for my brother's sake, and for your own. Your prospects in London have dimmed considerably in the last twenty-four hours."
Not that they had been particularly bright to begin with.
James stretched his legs out and absently noted a scuffed patch on his boots. Being back in society was not what he had hoped. It was too bloody passive, for one thing. He was beginning to wonder if cashing in his officer's commission and returning home had been a mistake. He lacked both the temperament and the funds to enjoy a life of empty leisure.
Perhaps Lord Denby was right. Maybe the eccentric provision in his grandfather's will was his best hope-and even if it was no hope at all, his uncle still needed someone to go, if only to prove that the journals had long ago moldered into dust.
But still, Tunisia?
"Assuming I went, what would it involve? I can't see interviewing every tribal sheik along the North African coast. There must be a map-isn't that how these things go?"
"We have this." Lord Denby pushed an inlaid wooden box toward him. "The solicitors released it to me after your grandfather's death."
James took the box. "It must be a very small map." He lifted the lid to find a packet resting on the red silk lining. "Letters?"
"They were penned by your grandfather from all around the Mediterranean. Love letters to your grandmother before they married." There was an uncharacteristic huskiness in Lord Denby's voice. "I find them difficult to read under the circumstances. The top one is most pertinent."
James removed the letter from its envelope and leaned forward to catch the light filtering through the tall Palladian windows. The writing was faded, the letter dated 23 July, 1792.
"There is a description of your grandfather's capture by Berbers and subsequent escape," Lord Denby said. "Look at the top of the second page."
We had made our way west along the Medjerda River, and though only three days' travel from the capital, we came upon one of those untouched places every explorer longs to find. This narrow valley in the mountains, a wild, rocky place, was filled with a profusion of Orchis boryi. They were in high bloom, rank upon rank ascending the valley until they broke in a wave of splendid purple upon an upthrusting of huge boulders. We camped at the foot of these rock giants where a small spring pooled.
"What are Orchis boryi?" James asked.
Lord Denby shrugged. "Your grandfather was the botanist, not I. Continue. He describes hiding the journals just before they were attacked."
I squeezed into a cleft in the ravine and scrambled up to a rock shelf, concealing the box that held our journals. It was then I noticed the most delicate flower clinging to the walls. It had small yellow petals and it rooted itself tenaciously in the fissures. I had never seen a flower quite like this. If only I could have examined it more closely-I'm sure it was hereto undiscovered. Then Mercer cried out and I went to him.
James was silent. He remembered the story. If he closed his eyes, he could see the old man in his library, a fierce light in his face as he recounted his adventures. The room had been crammed with artifacts from far-off lands. Bizarre carvings of animals, colorful rocks-rough-hewn turquoise and carnelian, even a nugget of gold. And a stuffed owl with glass eyes that always seemed to be watching him.
His grandfather had given him a large, speckled egg from a collection in a glass case. Whatever happened to it? Mysteriously broken, no doubt, when James returned with it to his uncle's home. Nothing important to him had been safe from Reggie's jealousy.
"Well?" Lord Denby asked.
James tapped the letter against his palm. "Why didn't Grandfather return and fetch the journals himself?"
"He loved your grandmother deeply. It was for her sake that he never mounted an expedition to recover his papers. Only after she died did he think of going back. By then ill-health and the obligations of his position prevented such a journey."
James flipped the letter over. "What's this?" There was a rough sketch on the back depicting a narrow vale with a huge rocky escarpment standing sentinel.
"The map-or the closest thing we have to it," Lord Denby said. "I assume it is the rock formation where he hid the journals."
"A sketch? What good is a picture of a valley when you have no idea where the valley is? This is a bit flimsy to justify haring off to Tunisia. Besides, my sister will never forgive me for leaving again so soon."
"Caroline will understand. Especially as it was her tart tongue that began the trouble with young Hereford in the first place."
James couldn't suppress his grin. Caroline was never one to mince her words, and he and his uncle both loved her for it. Lord Denby had truly been as a father to her. For that alone James owed him a debt of gratitude.
He would go to Tunisia.
And if he were successful? He could hardly bring himself to imagine it. But to be master of Somergate-gods, how his prospects would be changed.
"I will need to consult a botanist," he said, drumming his fingers on the arm of the chair. "Someone who can tell me about that purple Orchis, and where one might find a whole valley of them. One of grandfather's associates, perhaps?"
"Most are old men. Of those still left ..." His uncle pursed his lips. "I do recall one. Sir Edward Strathmore. He and your grandfather corresponded regularly. He seemed an amiable fellow when we met. I could write a letter of introduction."
"Good. Send it today."
"You'll go, then?"
James rose, feeling more himself than he had in months. "I will."
Chapter Two Lily Strathmore touched her brush to the paper, streaking crimson highlights along the petals taking shape on the page. She had finished the technical studies and now was painting for her own pleasure, letting the lush, perfumed warmth of the conservatory transport her into the heart of the flower. She stepped back from the easel and considered the rich red of the Amaryllis. Yes, that would do nicely.
"Lily?" Her cousin Isabelle stirred on the nearby chaise. "Do you really think your parents will take you back to London with them? The expedition wouldn't be the same without you."
"They won't if I have any say in the matter. I've only been here a week-hardly long enough to make a start painting your father's new specimens. I'll find some way to stay. I always do." Lily set her paintbrush down and smoothed back her unruly chestnut hair with both hands. "Mother only wants me back in town because she has some scheme in mind-something matrimonial, no doubt."
"London isn't all bad, surely. If you return you'll be able to attend the balls and parties. While you're dancing with dashing gentlemen, I'll be carted around Italy with father's precious roots and twigs."
"At least you won't be required to dance and make conversation with them. I'd much prefer to travel about the continent with your family. Collecting and painting flowers is far more interesting than trying to impersonate one in a ball gown."
"So you have told me, for the hundredth time. But what about suitors? Surely you have scores of them?"
Lily exhaled. "Hardly scores. And being pursued is not so enviable when it is your mother selecting the pursuers." Lady Fernhaven had an unerring eye for the most placid, staid, and well-bred gentlemen society had to offer. None of the men who had been allowed to present themselves over the last four seasons had made Lily feel even a momentary flutter of emotion. No, that was not precisely true. Not if one classified boredom as an emotion.
"Don't worry," she added, seeing her cousin's serious expression. "When your season comes you'll have a lovely time and dozens of handsome suitors, I promise."
"Do you think so? I will pass?" Isabelle was due to make her come-out next year and cherished notions of London.
Isabelle's sparkling nature, her golden hair and fair complexion, would be well received by society. No doubt her cousin would have a throng of suitors. Lily did not envy her at all.
She took up her brush again and swirled it in a pan of deep green-the leaves needed more shading to bring the flower out. The delicate brushwork took all her attention.
A gentle hand fell on Lily's shoulder, drawing her out of the world of shadow and tint and back into the conservatory. How long had it been? She looked up to see her Aunt Mary smiling.
"The painting is lovely, my dear," her aunt said. Her gaze shifted to her daughter. "Isabelle, your brother is about to go riding and wonders if you would join him."
"Of course." Isabelle jumped up. "It must have stopped raining."
Aunt Mary took the seat her daughter had vacated and gave Lily a searching look. "Your parents seem set on taking you back to London."
"No doubt Mother has another perfect prospect waiting. Perfect, that is, until we actually meet. With all the men in town, you'd think there would be someone. At this rate, I won't ever marry."
"There is no one? With your younger sister now wed, you are the only daughter left at home. Have you considered what that means?"
Lily set her brush down. "In what way? I don't relish the idea of ending up a spinster-but at least there would be plenty of time for painting. Life without a husband is better, in my estimation, than life with the wrong husband."
"That seems a lonely choice, my dear."
Lily shrugged. "I have come to terms with the idea."
Her hand smoothed her painting apron. She had always thought there would be someone for her, and children, too. But, as her mother so frequently reminded her, she was four-and-twenty-perilously close to being on the shelf. Her chances of making a match that would satisfy both her mother and herself were growing slimmer each day. Yet she could not bring herself to encourage the stuffy, self-absorbed aristocrats she was paraded before. She knew her duty was to make a match that would enhance her family's status and her father's position in Parliament, yet she had always believed that there should be something more.
Aunt Mary studied her. "You realize your sister's marriage changes your own situation."
"How so? Beyond the fact that I will now bear the full brunt of Mother's matchmaking."
A look of sympathy passed across her aunt's features. "You are the last unmarried daughter. Your mother may soon stop trying to see you wed and instead turn her focus toward seeing that you are ready to tend her-and your father-into their old age. The freedom of spinsterhood comes only after your obligation to your parents has ended. That might be very late in your life."
Or not at all. The muscles in Lily's jaw tightened. She had not fully considered it before, but her aunt was right. Horribly right.
Her mother was never an easy person to live with. The thought of playing the dutiful daughter, of fetching and carrying and accompanying her on an endless round of social calls ... Lily shook her head. It was simply impossible.
"I'd imagined the opportunity to travel, to paint-not play nursemaid and companion to my parents."
Aunt Mary met her eyes directly. "I thought it best that you understand the situation clearly, my dear, especially with your parents' visit coming to a close. They would like a word with you in the drawing room. I expect you'll want to freshen up."
Lily entered the drawing room to find her father standing before the window, staring out at a patch of blue framed by dark clouds. Her mother sat in the wingback near him, hands folded in her lap, waiting. To pounce, no doubt. They were both dressed for travel, Lady Fernhaven, as always, in the first order of fashion. Her sea-green silk walking dress was a perfect match for her eyes-an unusual hue that Lily had inherited. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Passionate by Anthea Lawson
Copyright © 2008 by Anthea Lawson. Excerpted by permission.
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